Irene Spencer did as she felt God commanded in marrying her brother-in-law Verlan LeBaron, becoming his second wife. When the government raided the fundamentalist, polygamous Mormon village of Short Creek, Arizona, Irene and her family fled to Verlan's brothers' Mexican ranch.
They lived in squalor and desolate conditions in the Mexican desert with Verlan's six brothers, one sister, and numerous wives and children. Readers will be appalled and astonished, but most amazingly,greatly inspired.
Irene's dramatic story reveals how far religion can be stretched and abused and how one woman and her children found their way out, into truth and redemption.
Just as A Mormon Mother is the standout memoir of a 19th-century polygamous woman's life, this autobiography offers the compelling voice of a contemporary plural wife's experiences. Daughter of a second wife, Spencer was raised strictly in the Principle as it was lived secretly and illegally by fringe communities of Mormon fundamentalists--groups that split off from the LDS Church when it abandoned polygamy more than a century ago. In spite of her mother's warnings and the devotion of a boyfriend with monogamist intentions, Spencer followed her religious convictions--that living in polygamy was essential for eternal salvation--and became a second wife herself at the age of 16 in 1953. It's hard to tell which is more devastating in this memoir: the strains of husband-sharing with--ultimately--nine other wives, or the unremitting poverty that came with maintaining so many households and 56 children. Spencer's writing is lively and full of engaging dialogue, and her life is nothing short of astonishing. After 28 years of polygamous marriage, Spencer has lived the last 19 years in monogamy. Her story will be emotional and shocking, but many readers will resonate with the universal question the memoir raises: how to reconcile inherited religious beliefs when they grate against social norms and the deepest desires of the heart. (Aug. 22)
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August 22, 2007
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Excerpt from Shattered Dreams by Irene Spencer
As we were growing up, polygamy was the ruling tenet of our lives. This "Celestial Law" was so integral to who we were and what we were trying to accomplish that most often, we referred to it simply as "the Principle." Everything else we were to do or not do, be or not be (a great deal, as it turns out) was ancillary to this: men were to have as many wives and as many children as they possibly could during the few years they walked this Earth. It was upon the conclusion of those trying, earthly years that we would all reap the divine rewards for our obedience to the Principle.
As children, we were not just taught to honor the Principle, we were taught to claim it as our birthright. We were born into it; no conversion was necessary. "You are God's chosen ones, his special children of the covenant" we were told at home and at Sunday meeting, during visits to and from friends, and in all the literature we were allowed to read. We consequently viewed with great suspicion the few strange souls who occasionally tried to join our ranks from the outside. More likely than not they were mere deviants, men who got off on the idea of God-sanctioned sex with multiple women who were bound by oath to endure it. These were not children of the Principle. Children of the Principle understood that polygamy was all about future glory.
I WAS BORN INTO a fourth-generation polygamous family on February 1, 1937, a day that lay frozen under the white shroud of a typical Utah winter. I ended up a middle kid--thirteenth of the thirty-one born to my father, fourth of the six born to my mother. I was Mother's long-awaited first daughter. After me, she had two more.
Mother was the second of Dad's four wives. Rhea Allred, his first wife (a powerful position within many polygamous families), was a smashing brunette with beautiful brown eyes who believed heartily in the Principle and was determined to live it. My grandfather Harvey, who fathered both Rhea and Mother by different wives, wouldn't let Dad marry Rhea until he promised just one thing: to live plural marriage. Outside our Mormon fundamentalist circle, this would have been an unthinkable stipulation to put on a prospective groom, particularly one wanting to marry your daughter. But among children of the covenant, a commitment to polygamy had to come first. Dad complied, initially by word and later by action.
So my mother, Olive, was my aunt Rhea's half sister. In obedience to the Principle, Aunt Rhea urged and ultimately persuaded Mother to marry her husband--my father, Morris Q. Kunz. This was one of the more vexing contributions polygamous women were called on to make: the recruitment of new wives into their husband's households. After all, only so many women were born into the Principle, and each man was commanded to wed as many of them as he could. There was terrible competition. Weary husbands needed assistance, particularly as they aged and grew thicker in the middle as well as thinner in the wallet. A righteous woman who mastered the sin of jealousy and could effectively court others on her husband's behalf was a prize worth having. Generally, she could accomplish it only with her eternal rewards square in her sights. Devout Aunt Rhea managed to do her part. So Mother and Rhea were half sisters who then became sister wives.
Twenty-one on her wedding day (relatively old by polygamist standards), Mother was a lovely, blue-eyed blonde. One might think two beautiful wives would be enough for any man, but in polygamy, nothing is ever enough. A couple years after he married Mother, Dad married Ellen Halliday, who he'd met only days earlier. And another two years after that, while Ellen was still taken up with the birth of their second child, Dad married fifteen-year-old Rachel Jessop, his fourth wife. He was two months shy of twenty-eight at the time.
THE PRINCIPLE WAS NEITHER a license for male promiscuity (though it sometimes felt like it) nor a gratuitous call to suffering (though it quite often felt like that). In harmony with our teaching that "as man is, God once was, and as God is, man may become," the Principle was, quite simply, the way of God.
Many early Mormons believed this planet was given to Adam as a reward for his own obedience to the Celestial Law on some other world. Adam, known prior to his earthly incarnation as Michael the Archangel, was granted the status of a god because of his righteous life. Earth was to be his domain, and the wives and children he acquired on that other world were to help him populate this one, which he would then rule over as God the Father, spoken of in the Christian scriptures. Adam came to Earth with one of his celestial wives to begin mortal life for their spirit children.